Lodging thirty-eight people in an inn is not an easy thing to do. First, it's expensive even if the ruler of Ylisse reserved usage of the premises. Second, it’s very crowded. Third, room configuration almost never works out, no matter who is paired with whom.
When Nisha attempted this challenge in Valm's largest port city, all three problems presented themselves immediately, along with a fourth: after handing over the gold, and organizing their limited floor space, the tactician declared that there was to be no alcohol consumption that night, as they would be boarding a ship to Regna Ferox in the morning.
When this latest news arrived—delivered by a grouchy Basilio during dinner—it had elicited shouts and some pounding on tables from the Ylissean party. Gangrel had not said a word, nor shown violence towards the furniture. Instead, he had simply glared at the opposite corner of the room, where Nisha sat.
Like himself, she was seated alone, on the edges of the group. He couldn't see much of her—her hood was drawn up, hiding her face in the dim candlelight. Gangrel could tell by the way she inclined her head that she was staring at the table, no doubt to avoid the shouts and glares directed at her.
Complaints continued to rain all throughout dinner and for hours afterward, but Nisha had stood firm in her decision. She even gone so far as to talk to the inn's owner and forbid him to serve alcoholic beverages to anyone in the army. All the while, the Mad King's eyes never left the tactician's cloaked form.
She knew he was watching, and Gangrel knew that she knew it: she was resolutely avoiding his eye as she went about her silent business. No doubt she could feel his stare scorching her all evening.
The uproar faded into silent discontent as the Shepherds began to wander back to their rooms upstairs. Nisha had been the first to disappear, but even after she had gone, Gangrel continued to stare at the table where she'd sat. The candlelight faded as the flames burned down the wicks and into the growing pool of wax.
The dark did not bother him and even after the innkeeper had retired to his room, the Plegian still did not move a muscle. His mind was perfectly thoughtless, allowing the Mad King to savor the feelings of deep-seated bitterness that rushed through him.
He had wanted release from his torment, had wanted so badly to forget reality for a few hours—was one night of peace too much to ask? One drink, and he'd be released from the weight resting in his chest. But no, he didn't get a break: Nisha had made certain of that.
Gangrel's mind rifled through the dark, bitter memories of the recent past. Over and over, he saw Nisha straightening her shoulders as she prepared to kill him with her words, saw Stahl calm her fears with the lightest touch, and heard Henry's voice repeating, "Yeah, you love her."
If only he could rip his chest open and tear out his heart! Gangrel was certain it would be less painful than this endless watching, the unending wait for death to hurry up and take him.
A creak sounded on the stairs.
The trickster didn't move, but he was suddenly alert. He could see movement in his periphery, and watched the figure come down into the darkened room. The faintest scowl crossed his features: he knew who it was, and he was not happy to see her.
"Still sulking, are you?"
Aversa's words were quiet, but they still easily cut through the silence. The Mad King did not answer as she approached, still staring resolutely at the dark corner. He saw the Grimleal woman come closer, until she lightly rested her hands on the tabletop.
"Come now, don't be like that," she murmured, her voice sickly sweet. "I only wish to help you."
"No you don't," the trickster replied tonelessly, getting to his feet. "You never have."
She didn't sound hurt, however. Instead, Aversa sounded as though she were concealing delight. Gangrel allowed his eyes to look her over apathetically.
The only thing visible in the dark was a sliver of her face, caught in a moonbeam. Her lips were curled into a sly smile, an expression that should have put the Mad King on his guard. As it was, however, he simply didn't have the energy—or motivation—to react.
"What is it you want from me?" he asked wearily. Aversa's smile widened a fraction.
"I want to comfort you," she whispered, approaching him slowly. "You've been torn apart by our lovely tactician—"Gangrel's heart clenched painfully at the last word—"and I want to repair the damage."
She was still coming closer. Unconsciously, the red-haired man began backing away from her. Aversa's face slid into darkness as she continued to advance.
Gangrel felt the uneven wooden surface of the wall hard against his back. The Grimleal woman was so close to him, their bodies almost touched. He felt her hand press against his chest, directly over his heart.
"Really now, my King," Aversa purred, her voice low and seductive, "what reason have you to deny me?"
Gangrel could not speak;it were as if his throat had ceased working, and he could not draw in air to make sound.
She's so close, was his only coherent thought. The sultry woman had pressed herself against him, and he was finding it impossible to concentrate on anything other than her presence. Part of him wanted to flee, but he was trapped in a corner and something else kept him rooted to the spot. He was aware of what was about to happen, and his heart began to pound.
Aversa's lips pressed against his.
In the one second it took for the Grimleal temptress to begin the kiss, Gangrel's mind fractured: part of him—a smaller, more animal part—wanted to enjoy it, savor the taste and do as he pleased with this woman, take what she offered. The larger part of him was disappointed. It was nothing at all like the last kiss he'd had: there was no real desire, no pleasure beyond the physical variety. The gesture was empty, containing nothing more than superficial, momentary promises.
Gangrel stood motionless, eyes shut, a dull numbness spreading through his chest. He waited for the Grimleal woman to move away, and after what seemed like an eternity she did.
The Mad King opened his eyes, staring into space instead of meeting Aversa's gaze. Then he saw movement at the top of the stairs. There, illuminated by a slanting beam of moonlight, stood Nisha. Their eyes locked for the briefest of moments.
The tactician's mouth opened a fraction as her brow furrowed. She appeared to be caught between shock and hurt. Then she turned and fled back to the rooms, a loud creak echoing in the silence.
Aversa ignored the noise; resting her head against the trickster's shoulder, she murmured,
"Can't you see it? We could be so much more. There is nothing that tactician could offer you that is any better than what I can."
Lies. All lies. This was how the Grimleal operated, how Aversa operated. She felt as little affection for him as he did her. This wasn't a show of affection: it was a power play, and Gangrel had a shrewd idea of who was the target.
"You ask why I would deny you the right to be at my side," the Mad King stated calmly. "You've asked me this once before, years ago. My answer is the same."
Aversa was very still. Then, she slowly lifted herself off his chest.
"You would say no?" she inquired, though she clearly knew the answer already. "You would throw away the chance I'm offering? For a woman who can't stand the sight of you?"
"It's not for her," Gangrel snapped, spitting the last word out as if it had burned his tongue. "I say no because I will not be used. Not by you, nor anyone else."
Silence fell, thick and stifling. The trickster couldn't figure what Aversa was thinking, but whatever it was, it certainly would not be directed at him kindly.
"So," the Grimleal woman stated, her voice cold, "it comes to this, then."
"Don't pretend," Gargrel told her flatly. "It has always been this way between us. A change of circumstance will not affect that."
Aversa stepped away, her expression hidden in the dark. Then, turning on her heel, she stalked away. When her footsteps faded away on the stairs, the Mad King moved away from the wall, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
The emptiness that had filled him throughout the kiss was fading: his heart felt as though it had been pierced by a hot knife as both guilt and rage swirled inside him—guilt for allowing something like this to happen, and rage at himself for daring to feel the former emotion.
Nisha had given him nothing; there was no reason to feel obligated to her. He had rejected Aversa because she was a liar and he couldn't trust her. That was all.
Suddenly, he couldn't stand to be alone down in the bar. At the same time, the Mad King had no desire to move into the upper rooms where the Ylisseans slept.
Slowly, Gangrel walked out the inn's front door. It had gotten cold since sundown—the trickster could see his breath in the chilly moonlight. But even the cool wind could not feel colder than the frigid sensation freezing his heart.